Surveys report that people are increasingly experiencing feelings of anxiety. Although it is a normal (and useful) feeling, as a warning of danger, it can be quite unpleasant when the danger is not there. In the distant past, when our ancestors had to deal with large wild animals, anxiety was a sign that there could well be a tiger or buffalo just around the corner. Today, however, feelings of anxiety are much less likely to be accompanied by real danger.
Nonetheless, it shows itself in all sorts of distressing symptoms. We can feel an increased heart rate, panicky feelings in the stomach, and panic attacks – a severe sense of unsafeness.
How can we tackle these symptoms? What doesn’t help is worrying about it or ruminating about it – that just makes it worse. We need to feel it first in the body; what is happening there? Then, focus on your breath and study how you are breathing – shallow or deep, quick or slow, and noticing how your breathing is changing.
Then, notice the sensations in your feet. After that, put your hand on your heart - a sign that you are trying to look after yourself. You could also move about “in a purposeful way”: taking some action. Your adrenalin is being produced at a high rate and it needs to come down. These exercises will help this.
In addition, when you are with someone you trust, you can engage your “social engagement system”, calming down with someone who can say to you “you are safe with me”, especially non-verbally. Good eye contact, and calm facial expression, body posture and tone quality in the voice all helps. We catch each others’ internal state. Being anxious on your own feels more unsafe.
Then, what sometimes helps is to remember and think about those you know and trust who are calm. That is another way of reducing anxiety.
Finally, remember not to blame yourself for your state of mind. Try to be kind to yourself! That also helps to shift this state.
Yesterday was a different sort of day. It was Remembrance Sunday, and sitting in a building just by the park, I was able to see, and hear, what was going on there in the minutes before and after eleven a.m. A drill sergeant was bringing his troop to order as they marched in to the park. Martial music accompanied their regular footsteps. Later, clergymen and women spoke to the large crowd who were standing quietly around, many of whom wearing dark clothes. Then, after a final reveille from the trumpets, the crowd slowly dispersed. This has been a familiar scene at this time since the 1920s.
As I listened to the service, too far away to hear the words, I began to think about this annual event; what were the people here for? Who came and who did not, so long after the great wars of the 20th century that killed so many? Perhaps, among all possible reasons, people were thinking of members of their families who had lost their lives before their time. Even after all this time, for them grieving has not stopped. The loss is still felt, even as they go about their everyday lives.
This contrasts with attitudes that some seem to hold today about loss. “You will get over it”, and later “Surely you have got over it by now” may be expressed by people who are feeling the weight of the bereaved person’s grief. But we are now coming to realise that loss can take a long time to come to terms with.
Loss is not only about the death of a beloved one. It can affect people rejected in love, and indeed anyone who has been attached to whatever they feel to be important – a job, a place where people have lived for a long time.
And grieving can take many forms. The struggle to come to terms with what has happened shows itself in many ways. All sorts of feelings can come to the surface – anger, sadness, denial – and people may become restless, or listless. What is important to realise is that people have their individual way of dealing with loss, and that there is no one way that is better that another.
What has happened is that we have lost a part of ourselves, that part of the person which we were, when we were with the other, lost person. We have been cut off from those feelings that we experienced when were with the other. Those feelings are now missing, without their outlet, and it can take a long time for them to grow again.
What usually happens is that there is a gradual move towards living in the present. It is possible to take more pleasure in things happening now. There is an acceptance of what has happened, a state that can be disrupted by smells, tastes or sights that suddenly bring back memories of the beloved.
Time, of itself, does not heal. What does help is finding things in the present to engage with.
As I hurried away from him, I noticed those familiar sensations and feelings coming back again. I felt red in the face and my heart was beating loudly. I was unable to look anyone in the face. I noticed a huge inner pain - a sort of constriction around my stomach, or a shriveling up. I had a strong sense of my stupidity and unworthiness. I knew that I had to hide away; others must not see how I was feeling."
Shame - let's come out now with the feeling that we dare not name - was what I was experiencing then after that encounter. It is difficult to acknowledge to oneself and to admit to to another because to do so in itself creates a sense of shame. Though often fleeting, it can be intensely uncomfortable, and one, Dear Reader, that we are all familiar with, but which we often keep from others knowing. Sylvan Tomkins describes it as "an inner torment, a sickness of the soul." Shaming is an attack on our sense of who we are by people who we are involved with.
So, how does this shame arise? How can we be free from it? It may be surprising, but shame can be seen as a good thing. It arises when people attempt to influence others' behaviour. We all need to have a sense of belonging with others - friends, family lovers - and to find a way of being ourselves and expressing our wishes with them. Others, in their reactions to us, give us a sense of who we are and how we matter to them. Their reactions matter to us, and their disapproval of something we do can be experienced as a rejection. For groups and relationships to continue, it is important that we create agreement about how we should behave. For instance, when we were small children, a gaze from an adult that conveys disappointment or disgust provokes shame in us, which we can only be rid of if we conform to what they expect of us. When it is experienced infrequently and lightly, this "normal" experience of shame can help us in our bonding with others. It can help us develop empathy and compassion for others.
When we are subject to shaming on a frequently, and it is not used to shape our responses for the benefit of the whole group, but rather to humiliate and degrade us, shame becomes harmful to us. We become much more sensitive to episodes which we take as shaming, learning from past experience that others are likely to shame us again. This shame based reaction to life becomes part of our personality.
We have several options that we could use to protect ourselves against what we can call this chronic shame. We can withdraw, become invisible in social groups, so as to be unnoticed. We might be in company with others, but cut ourselves off from our own feelings and so eventually not know who we are. These avoidance strategies can be supplemented by aggressive ones - against the self, through relentless self criticism or self blame, or against others, by feeling a rage and humiliated fury.
These ways of responding have their drawbacks, of course and do not resolve the effects of being shamed. These defenses inhibit the easy flow of friendly and constructive relationships with others that we desire so deeply. However, there are other ways of managing shaming situations. We need to know that we are all right as a person, with some faults maybe, but basically OK. We accept ourselves, for a start. This means we need relationships where we are accepted as ourselves. We need a clear and relaxed state of mind so as to be aware of what is going on, that we can be our own judge as to our behaviour. That calmness can help us to decide who we want to be rather than let others decide for us. To help us regain our emotional balance, we need someone to talk with about shaming events. We need to feel unafraid in their company, knowing that they will not shame us, to whom we can admit these shame feelings. This support our sense of self-worth and reduces our feelings of isolation that shame induces in us.
Many counsellors, as a condition of their training, have experienced counselling for themselves. This experience puts them in the position of knowing something of the process from both sides. They recognise that there are certain aspects that they find really important for a successful outcome.
I wish to talk about empathy. Empathy is one of the three ‘core conditions’ that should be present and felt by the client in a therapeutic encounter (the others being ‘congruence’ and ‘unconditional positive regard’). It is a way of paying close attention to what is going on in someone else in a way that encourages the other to talk. The feeling develops that what the talker is saying is worthwhile, and that they are worthwhile too. The listener is trying to become familiar with the inner world of the other person. As this progresses, this familiarity grows into a deeper understanding of the other’s internal landscape - what is important to them, what they feel most deeply, and how these ideas and feelings fit into the way they see their lives. And as a result, the talker may feel more confident in exploring more deeply, perhaps uncovering feelings about their lives they did not know they had.
Empathy is about recognizing the way the other person is thinking - how they is making sense of their world - and how the person is feeling. It is not a detached process on the part of the counsellor. They have to be committed to the “client” and their well-being. They must also be curious, and use their imagination, and notice what their own feelings are, as the client unfolds their story - these may correspond to what the client is feeling, but perhaps not knowing it yet.
The effect of this approach is that a relationship of trust grows between counsellor and client. A sense of connection develops as the counsellor accurately feeds back their understanding of the client’s issues. The client feels something powerful and liberating when this occurs. Life does not feel so bleak or isolating. When this is repeated time and time again, the client feels something different about their life. Being understood means no longer feeling so isolated.
Empathy is not an esoteric technique invented by the counselling profession. Rather, as you may have noticed, it is part of everyday life and everyday contact with other people. We notice what is going on in others as we try to navigate our way through life. It is an important part of how we relate with people who are important to us. But it is also an important function of a connective society to enhance this empathic bond, helping people to feel less marginalized and more a part of the whole. And as counsellors use this aspect of communication, they have been thinking and writing (and researching) about its value in helping people.
In some ways, feeling and expressing empathy in relationships in our lives is more challenging than in the counselling room. In “real life”, we have complicated needs that we hope for from other people, and we have to find a way to give and take to get our needs met. Life can get very complicated! In counselling, counsellors expect these needs to be met elsewhere – and so they can devote their whole attention to the client. To make counselling safe for both parties, boundaries are put around the relationship, of time, place and purpose. But empathy, when felt by both parties is a border incursion that can be an essential to the growthful environment.
What is self-harm?
Self-harm can be any behaviour that can have a detrimental effect on a person’s physical and/or emotional well being. Examples of this can include smoking, using drugs, drinking excessively, overworking, and even staying up late! It is important to note that self-harming behaviours can be viewed as a continuum – so what may be considered harmful for one person may not be so for another.
There is a difference between ‘self-harm’ and ‘self-injury’. Self-injury is “any act that involves deliberately inflicting pain and/or injury to one’s own body not necessarily with suicidal intent” (Arnold and Magil 1996). This can include, but is not limited to hair pulling (trichotillomania), skin picking, cutting, swallowing harmful substances, and burning (with heat or chemicals).
It is often useful to consider “The 8 ‘C’s of Self Harm” when exploring the reasons why. These are:
1. Coping and Crisis intervention – self-harming can be seen as an escape from a stressful situation.
2. Calming and Comforting – the ritual of self-injury can create familiarity where chaos and unpredictability may be present.
3. Control – in a situation where a person has limited options, self-injury can be the only thing they can control.
4. Cleansing – for example with cutting, the sight of blood can be reassuring.
5. Confirmation of existence – feeling physical pain or seeing blood can sometimes be the only way that a person can feel alive.
6. Creating comfortable numbness – switching emotional pain for physical pain.
7. Chastisement – punishment for acting or feeling a certain way for example.
8. Communication – ‘I’m not ok, I need help’.
(Taken from “The 8 ‘C’s of Self harm” by Jan Sutton)
As a counsellor, I would never tell someone to not self-harm or self-injure. For many, this has been the only way they have learned to cope in stressful situations in what is known as a ‘creative adjustment’, and to challenge this behaviour would be equally as harmful. Instead, it is useful to explore why someone may choose to self-injure to begin with, and to focus on the person behind the behaviour rather than the act itself.
If a client discloses to me that they have self-injured, I am not obliged to disclose this to anyone unless the act of self-injury could be life-threatening. I may suggest that they keep a diary to try and highlight any patterns or triggers that may emerge. We might explore alternatives such as snapping an elastic band on the wrist instead of cutting. One creative suggestion that I have heard of is from a client who enjoyed the sight of his own blood, and decided instead to lie in a bath of water that had had red food colouring added!
What to do next
Talking about self-harming behaviours can be difficult, and may bring up feelings of anxiety, shame and fear. There are many agencies out there that can provide support over the phone, or online such as Samaritans, and ChildLine. Here at Derby Counselling Centre, our counsellors have experience of working with people who have self-injured, and offer a non-judgemental, safe space to talk.
Reading our website about ‘What happens in a counselling session’, you will find a somewhat prosaic description of a ‘confidential meeting between a counsellor and a client’. Yet what happens is multifaceted, and can be life-enhancing and life-changing, profound and discomforting. So many emotions can be present that basic descriptions inevitably fall short. This can be the place where real change becomes a possibility, in an environment of trust and honesty. It can be where a person finds the courage to sacrifice what they are for what they could become.
And this is something we at Derby Counselling Centre have been doing since 1981, when our founder, Eric Wall, had the idea to offer local people affordable professional counselling, as a not-for-profit charity. Since that time, thousands of clients have been helped and supported by the counsellors at our city-centre location. Some will come for just a few sessions, some for many more. They will come with a limitless variety of issues; anxiety, stress, low self-esteem, loneliness, depression, and anger. They will be addicted, abused, mistreated, and without confidence. They may self-harm, feel suicidal, angry, despairing, and adrift. They will be from different backgrounds and cultures, social classes and ethnic groupings. In short, they will reflect the complexity of the human condition; no one client is alike. The one constant, however, is that they will be offered a safe and non-judgmental space to explore their issues. They will be treated with empathy and respect, something they may not have experienced before. The counsellor will not set an agenda but walk alongside them, as they embark on a journey to who they might want to be.
To reflect the complexity of our clients and the variety of their needs, the counsellors will use a number of different approaches: person-centred or humanistic counselling, psycho-dynamic, CBT, gestalt, attachment, etc. But whatever the model, the essential element to facilitate growth is the therapeutic relationship between counsellor and client. This is based upon trust, openness, being genuine, and unafraid. The presence the counsellor offers a client can have a profound and lasting effect upon them, especially if they have been neglected or marginalised in their lives.
At Derby Counselling Centre, we believe in the capacity of the person to develop and change their lives. We do not diagnose, offer advice on pharmacy, or prescribe ‘conditions’ to our clients. Nor do we use ‘techniques’ that can create a divide and dilute the experiential connection that is crucial to personal growth. Yes it is just two people talking: but how rich and affirmative can that be, when the ‘core conditions’ of positive listening and empathic understanding are present.
We do not promote the notion that counselling is a ‘cure’, even if it does have the capacity to engender change in a person. Rather, it is a way for a client to discover themselves, reflecting on their current situation and on the life events that might have led them to this. Through this, they may achieve some sort of resolution and acceptance of who they are, and then be able to see themselves in a more compassionate and empathic light. Going forward, their life resources can be enhanced by the objective reflection counselling allows and this consideration, if received with respect, can encourage deeper exploration. Counselling offers both the simplicity and the complexity of human connection; it provides the environment in which a client can discover and become used to talking about and reflecting upon themselves; and this can enable the client to evaluate, grow, and move forward as a stronger more confident person.
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Here you can find all sorts of great content and news about your local counselling centre. All of our blog posts are written by our counsellors, so expect a variety of posts!
Watch this space!